How an Intelligence Officer Used Monopoly to Free POWs

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iStock

What got Christopher Clayton Hutton his job as an intelligence officer at MI9 wasn’t anything on his professional resume. His career as a journalist, his work in Hollywood publicity departments, and his stint as a pilot in the Royal Air Force during the First World War mattered little to the War Office when he applied in 1939. “My passport to the whole curious business,” he recounted 22 years later in his autobiography, Official Secret, “had been a casual reference to my thwarted efforts to get the better of Harry Houdini, the world’s greatest escapologist.”

During his interview, Hutton—or Clutty, as he was called—recounted to Major J.H. Russell how, on April 29, 1915, he had written to the legendary showman, challenging him to escape from a box built on stage, in full view of the audience, by the master carpenter of his father’s timber mill company. “You enter immediately,” Hutton wrote, “wenail down the lid, securely rope up the box, and defy you to escape without demolishing same.”

Houdini accepted, with one condition: that he be allowed to visit the timber mill and meet the carpenter. Hutton, then just 20, arranged the meeting—not realizing, until much later, that Houdini had used the time to bribe the woodworker. In exchange for a mere £3 (less than $5), the carpenter agreed to build the box in such a way that, once Houdini was inside and the box was concealed behind a curtain, it would be easy for the famous escape artist to push one end off using just his feet, then nail it back on properly while the orchestra at the performance played especially loudly.

Though he’d always been interested in show business, Hutton told Russell that the Houdini incident marked the beginning of an obsession with magic. “Magicians, illusionists, escapeologists in particular—they all fascinate me,” Hutton said.

“You may be the very man we want,” Russell replied. “We’re looking for a showman with an interest in escapology.” And just like that, Hutton was hired.

Hutton’s job, he learned that day, would be to build and conceal tools that would allow Allied prisoners of war to escape German POW camps. Over the course of World War II, 232,000 Western Allies (and 5.7 million Soviet soldiers) were imprisoned in the camps, most of which were located in Eastern Germany and Austria, making for a long and difficult route back home. The prisoners, Hutton’s superior told him, were being instructed to try to escape, with the hope that they would be able to divert German soldiers from the front. Clutty was given the rank of lieutenant and told to get to work.

It quickly became clear that Clutty had no respect for rules or boundaries. He often employed unorthodox methods, and stepped on plenty of toes, to get things done. “This officer is eccentric,” his commanding officer wrote to a provost marshal. “He cannot be expected to comply with ordinary service discipline, but he is far too valuable for his services to be lost to this department.” Hutton and his team regularly churned out impressive devices to aid POWs in their escape attempts, including flying boots with hollow heels that held knives, maps, a compass, and a file—and could also be transformed into civilian shoes; a telescope disguised as a cigarette holder; and compasses so tiny they could be hidden on the backs of buttons.

But as ingenious as Hutton’s concealments were, the Germans inevitably figured them out. All of them, that is, but one. This particular scheme that Clutty had hatched wouldn’t come to light until the documents were declassified four decades after the end of the war: With the help of a Leeds-based manufacturing company, Hutton hid escape kits for POWs in unassuming, ordinary-looking Monopoly games.

MAPS AND MONOPOLY

Monopoly first made its way to the UK in 1935, just a few months after Parker Brothers purchased it from Charles Darrow. Not long after, the company shipped the game overseas to its U.K. partners, John Waddington Limited, a printing and packaging company that was beginning to make the move into games. “The Waddingtons were so taken by Monopoly that they immediately licensed it in December 1935,” Philip Orbanes, a Monopoly historian at Parker Brothers and author of three books about the game, tells mental_floss. “They adapted it to the market by changing the street names to appropriate streets in London.” The game, released in 1936, was an immediate hit in England.

In its original role as a printing company, Waddingtons was responsible for creating the silk play bills that were presented to the Royal Family at command performances. This had required the company to perfect the process of printing on silk, which its workers had accomplished by stretching the material and adding a gummy substance called pectin to the ink to keep it from running. The innovation made the printing of highly detailed silk escape maps—which didn’t rustle like paper maps, were impervious to dirt and water, and didn’t distort—possible, and the company was already making thousands for MI9, which were sewn into airmen’s uniforms. It was a perfect solution if an airman somehow managed to evade capture. But what about the men who ended up in POW camps?


From the collection of Philip E. Orbanes. Click to enlarge.

Clutty knew that games were allowed into camps; the Germans believed they provided a diversion for POWs whose main activity was trying to figure out how they could escape. And then inspiration struck: Most of his devices could only conceal one tiny tool, but a game with a large board could hide a silk map, a small compass, a Gigli saw, and a file. Waddingtons made silk maps—and Monopoly. The game was large enough for what he wanted, and the fake money could conceal the real money that POWs on the run would need. It was perfect for Hutton’s all-in-one escape kit.

On March 26, 1941, Hutton discussed the matter with the company's chairman, Victor Watson, then followed up with a letter that same day, which read, in part:

Dear Mr. Watson,

Reference our conversation today. I am sending you, under separate cover, as many maps as I have in stock of the following:
Norway and Sweden
Germany
Italy

I shall be glad if you will make up games on the lines discussed today containing the maps as follows:

One game must contain Norway, Sweden, and Germany.
One game must contain N. France, Germany, and frontiers.
One game must contain Italy.

I am also sending you a packet of small metal instruments. I should be glad if in each game you could manage to secrete one of these.

I want as varied an assortment containing these articles as possible. You had then better send me 100/200 games on the straight.

In those that are faked, you must give me some distinguishing clue and also state what they contain.

Waddingtons put just a few workers on the project, secluding them in a small room, where they used cookie cutter-like dies to punch compartments exactly the size of the items into the Monopoly boards—which were then an eighth of an inch thick, compared to today’s twelfth of an inch—before gluing the game board decal over it. When their job was done, the board was indistinguishable from one a regular citizen might buy in a store.


Courtesy of Philip E. Orbanes. Click to enlarge.

GETTING THE GAMES INTO THE CAMPS

After designing his ingenious escape aids, Clutty’s greatest challenge was figuring out how to actually get them into the camps. He couldn’t use Red Cross packages, and monthly personal packages sent to POWs by family and friends were out, too. “I had no doubt that if the Germans discovered an illegal item in a ‘family’ parcel, they would have no compunction about withdrawing the privilege altogether,” Clutty wrote in Open Secret.

But Hutton knew that hundreds of organizations were sending care packages to POWs, and he decided to use that to his advantage. “We would hide our escape aids in parcels containing games, sports equipment, musical instruments, books, and articles of clothing,” he wrote. “We knew that these voluntary gifts, designed for the comfort and entertainment of the prisoners, were flooding the camps from hundreds of sources … There was no valid reason why we should not take cover behind this multiplicity of well-wishers.”

He and his team created a bunch of bogus organizations using the addresses of blitzed buildings. A printer made letterheads for the organizations “littered with quotations that we hoped would act both as clues and as an inspiration to the prisoners,” Clutty wrote. “One obvious quotation was from St. Matthew, Chapter 7: ‘Ask and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.’” To make their packages as authentic looking as possible, the team wrapped the parcels that supposedly came from Liverpool organizations, for example, in sheets from the Liverpool Echo.

To see if their packages were getting through, Hutton and his team enclosed “a printed card of acknowledgement on which the contents were enumerated. All the prisoner had to do was to tick off each article as received and return the card,” which was slightly bigger than the one used by the Red Cross, allowing for easy sorting by the censors. After sending out the first batch—which contained no contraband—the team waited and waited to receive cards. “We grew more and more depressed,” Hutton wrote, “telling ourselves gloomily that the Jerries had confiscated the lot and we should hear no more about the matter.”

But then, three months after they’d sent their packages, a card came in—then another, and another. The packages had gotten through! It was time to send through a batch that wasn’t entirely legitimate. “These plans of mine were greeted on all sides with complete skepticism,” Hutton wrote. “Even Major Crockatt said to me as the first 13 loaded parcels were sent, ‘They will never get through in 100 years.’” But Crockatt was wrong. Everything, even the fake material, had been delivered: “We had our entree into the camps.”

SENDING A MESSAGE

Getting the games into the camps was just one part of getting the tools to the POWs. Clutty also had to make sure that the prisoners knew what they were receiving. Clever messages that hinted at what was hidden inside the packages weren't enough; Clutty decided to train at least two members of every Air Force squadron in the art of sending hidden messages concealed in ordinary looking letters addressed to Mom and Dad.

When the trained men mailed letters back to the UK, those letters were intercepted and given to intelligence officers, who steamed them open and took a look at the date. “If it was written out, M-A-Y 3rd, the letter was simply resealed, and it went to whatever relative it was addressed to,” Orbanes says. “But if the letter’s date was numerical—three slash five slash '43—that said ‘there’s a message in this letter.’” The intelligence officer would then multiply the number of letters in the first two words to determine how many words were in the message. If the first two words were “how nice,” for example, then the officer would multiply three by four to get 12 words. “Then,” Orbanes says, “there was a technique by which he could pick out the words in the letter and write out the message.”

This allowed intelligence officers and POWs to communicate back and forth. POWs reported on conditions in the camp, and what they might need to escape—and intelligence officers let them know when special packages were coming their way. “The code user in the camp would eventually get a letter back from ‘Mom or Dad’ that would contain a secret message, and it would tell them when to expect the shipment and what the parcels might look like,” Orbanes says. The contents of Clutty's escape kits could be modified based on requests from code users.


Courtesy of Philip E. Orbanes. Click to enlarge.

Because keeping the secret of how escape tools were getting into the camps was paramount, only a few men ever knew how it was happening. Each POW camp had an escape committee that would receive the items, destroy the method of delivery by burning it in the barracks stove, and hide the tools away in false walls. “Ninety-nine percent of all the POWs had no idea of how the tools were getting into the camps,” Orbanes says. “If you and your buddies had a plan for an escape, you would go to the escape committee and present your idea. And if it was approved, they would issue you the tools you needed. So the POWs got what they needed to effectuate their plan, but they never knew how the tools got into the camp.”

THE AMERICAN EFFORT

When the United States entered the war, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Hutton was tasked with training his American counterpart, Captain Robley Winfrey, in the art of concealing escape tools in ordinary looking stuff. Winfrey, a civil engineering professor at Iowa State, took a leave of absence to join the Army when the U.S. entered the war; he set up a large, secret operation, Military Intelligence Services—Escape and Evasion Section (MIS-X), on the grounds of Mount Vernon in Virginia. Winfrey came up with a number of ideas to supplement Hutton’s, and it wasn’t long before MIS-X was sending out Monopoly boards loaded with escape tools, too.

But Winfrey’s operation differed from Hutton’s in one very important way: He didn’t have a factory that was making complete escape kit boards for him. Instead, he had to send MIS-X staffers in civilian clothes to stores to buy the games. “They would bring the games back to their facility and steam off the gameboard labels,” Orbanes says. “Then they would cut the compartments in, put in the particular escape tools that they wanted inside that game, and then re-apply the label—they actually had to reverse engineer the glue that Parker used.” Not even Parker Brothers knew their boards were being doctored.

GAME OVER

The Germans had discovered a number of Clutty and Winfrey’s concealments, so the duo always had to be one step ahead of the enemy. When the Germans realized that the cribbage boards prisoners were receiving actually contained radio parts, Winfrey began hiding the parts in the cores of baseballs; it took four baseballs to conceal enough parts to build one radio. Table tennis, Snakes & Ladders, chess sets, and playing cards were used to get escape tools and maps into POW camps.

When the war ended in September 1945, there was just one escape kit the Germans hadn’t discovered: Monopoly. None of the modified boards survived—the POWs had to destroy the boards that came into the camps, and MI9 and MIS-X destroyed whatever was left at the end of the war—and the role the game played wouldn’t be revealed until 1985, when British intelligence declassified documents related to Clutty’s work in MI9. MIS-X’s use of the game wasn’t revealed until 1990, when a member of that team was granted permission to tell his story.

According to Orbanes, at least 744 airmen escaped with aids created by Hutton and Winfrey. One of them was an American officer, Lieutenant David Bowling, who was a prisoner at Stalag Luft III, 100 miles southeast of Berlin. In late 1943, he responded to a commanding officer’s request for a solo escape attempt—which, if Bowling was recaptured, was punishable by death. “Leaders inside the camp had learned that the SS was attempting to wrest control of POW camps from the Luftwaffe,” Orbanes says. “With the war turning against the Germans, the SS proposed executing all POWs in order to free the security forces to bolster the front lines. This possibility had to be communicated quickly to Allied Command in England.”

Bowling spoke German well, and was issued civilian clothing, a forged ID, and a train schedule. He also traveled with German money, a silk map, a tiny compass, wire cutters, and a Gigli saw, which most likely came from a Monopoly game.

A few nights after getting the orders, Bowling waited until lights out at 10 p.m., crawled to the wire, and cut his way through, making his way to Sagan, about 10 miles away, where, the next morning, he boarded a train heading toward Switzerland, according to his map. “For days, Bowling guided his movements by his compass and map,” Orbanes says. “At times, he had to cut through fence wire to avoid walking across fields and remain hidden in woods.” Bowling eventually made it to Zurich and relayed the urgent message.

Were there more attempts like Bowling’s? Most definitely. But we’ll never know for sure just how many—most of the records, British and American, were destroyed just after the war ended. Says Orbanes, “These were better kept secrets than the Manhattan Project.”

10 Historically Disappointing Time Capsules

eag1e/iStock via Getty Images
eag1e/iStock via Getty Images

Unearthing a time capsule should be an exciting affair, a chance to see mysterious items hand-picked long ago as apposite examples of a bygone era. Unfortunately, these buried tubes of old garbage rarely live up to the hype.

"Ninety-nine percent of time capsules will remain boring as hell to the people that open them," says Matt Novak, who runs Gizmodo's Paleofuture site. Novak is a self-professed time capsule nerd who has seen enough capsule disappointments to keep his hopes in check. "Time capsules are both optimistic and selfish," he tells Mental Floss. "Optimistic in the sense that they represent a belief that not only will anyone find them sometime in the future, but also that anyone will care about what's inside."

Time capsules as we know them are a relatively new invention that became famous in 1939 with the burial of the Westinghouse Time Capsule at the World's Fair. This highly publicized capsule, which is not scheduled to be opened until the year 6939, contains both quotidian items and extensive writings on human history printed on microfilm (along with instructions on how to build a microfilm viewer). It was an ambitious project, with engineers specially designing the capsule to resist the ravages of time. Most time capsules, however, aren't equipped to be buried underground.

"Burying something is literally the worst way to preserve it for future generations," Novak says, "but we continue to do it." Contents are routinely destroyed by groundwater, so most time capsules reveal little more than trash chowder.

Still, Novak holds out hope for "rare one percenters—those time capsules that not only have something interesting inside, but also survived their journey into the future without turning into mush." The following 10 time capsules, however, fall firmly in the remaining 99 percent.

1. Derry, New Hampshire comes up empty

Just this week, residents of Derry, New Hampshire gathered at the local library to witness what they hoped might be an important moment in the town's history: the opening of a 1969 time capsule, which they believed might include some memorabilia from famed astronaut Alan Shepard, who was a Derry native. Instead, they found ... nothing. Absolutely nothing.

"We were a little horrified to find there was nothing in it," library director Cara Potter told the media. While there's no written record of exactly what was inside the safe, we do know that the time capsule had been moved a couple of times over the past several decades. And that the combination was written right on the back. "I really can’t understand why anyone would want to take the capsule and do anything with it,” Reed Clark, a 90-year-old local, told the New Hampshire Union Leader. But local historian Paul Lindemann says that, "There very well may have been valuable items in there" (including something of Shepard's).

2. The past comes alive in Tucson

In 1961, Tucson, Arizona's Campbell Plaza shopping center—the first air-conditioned strip mall in the country—celebrated its grand opening. To make the event truly memorable, developers buried a time capsule beneath the mall, forbidding anyone from opening it for the achingly long time period of 25 years.

When 1986 finally rolled around, another celebration was held for the capsule's unearthing. Three television crews captured the moment when workers, accompanied by a former Tucson mayor, excavated the capsule and cracked it open. Archaeologist William L. Rathje was on hand, and he later reported its contents as "a faded local newspaper (in worse condition than many I’ve witnessed being excavated from the bowels of landfills) and some business cards."

3. Bay City makes peace with its waterlogged history

In 1965, workers at Dafoe Shipbuilding Co. in Bay City, Michigan buried the “John F. Kennedy Peace Capsule.” It was to remain buried for 100 years—until city council members got antsy in 2015 and ordered for it to be unearthed five decades sooner than originally intended.

When crews unsealed the giant capsule, they found it was totally drenched: The shipbuilders responsible for sealing the capsule couldn't prevent it from taking on water. Many of the items were paper ephemera that didn't survive their 50-year submersion.

Non-paper items that could be identified included, according to MLive.com, “an old pair of lace-up women's boots, large ice tongs for carrying blocks of ice, a slide rule with a pencil sharpener, a pestle and wooden bowl, a centennial ribbon, a coffee grinder, a filament light bulb, an old non-electric iron and lots of Bay City Centennial plates, a 1965 Alden's Summer Catalogue, papers from Kawkawlin Community Church, and booklets from the labor council.”

4. Westport Elementary's too-successful capsule

In 1947, the superintendent of Westport Elementary School in Missouri buried a time capsule that wasn't to be opened for another 50 years. He left a note detailing this fact, but he forgot to include any information about the capsule's location. When it came time to retrieve it, no one knew where to start digging. ''We're calling it a history mystery,'' said a teacher who was tasked with finding it. She had little to go on, as the school's original blueprints—like the capsule itself—were lost.

5. The smell of history on Long Island

For its 350th anniversary in 2015, the residents of Smithtown in Long Island, New York opened a time capsule that had been buried in front of town hall in 1965. An unveiling celebration was held, and a crowd of more than 175 gathered to watch town officials dressed in colonial costumes dramatically reveal its contents.

These included, according to Newsday, "a proclamation of beard-growing group Brothers of the Brush, papers, and paraphernalia from the town's 300th anniversary events, a phone book, an edition of The Smithtown News, pennies from the 1950s and '60s, a man's black hat, and a white bonnet.”

Town residents and officials alike came away unimpressed. "I would have thought those folks would have used a little more imagination and put some artifacts from that time in the time capsule," Smithtown's then-supervisor Patrick Vecchio said.

Kiernan Lannon, the executive director of the town's Historical Society, told Newsday, "The most interesting thing that came out of the time capsule was the smell. It was horrible. I have smelled history before; history does not smell like that. It was the most powerfully musty smell that I've ever smelled in my life."

6. A time capsule worse than going to class

In 2014, New York Mills Union Free School District students filed into an assembly hall to watch the opening of a 57-year-old time capsule. The capsule, buried under the school’s cornerstone, was revealed to contain "a 1957 penny, class lists, teacher handbook, budget pamphlet, and letterhead." In a video of the unearthing, you could hear stray boos from disappointed students who expected much more than letterhead.

7. Norway's anachronistic treasure trove

The residents of Otta, Norway had been eagerly awaiting the day when they'd get to open a package that had been sealed in 1912 and given to the town's first mayor in 1920, along with a note: "May be opened in 2012." Townspeople hoped it contained oil futures, while historians optimistically predicted relics from a 400-year-old battle.

The parcel was opened at the end of a lavish ceremony that featured musical performances and speeches. The crowd, which included Princess Astrid of Norway, had to wait 90 suspenseful minutes (in addition to the 100 years since 1912) before they got down to business.

The Gudbrandsdal museum's Kjell Voldheim had the honor of opening the package. Inside he found ... another package. Inside that package were miscellaneous papers, and Voldheim narrated for the crowd as he pored through the items. “Oye yoy yoy," he said ("almost in exasperation," according to Smithsonian), as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Included among the lackluster documents were newspapers dated from 1914 and 1919, a few years after the package had presumably been sealed. While deemed authentic, the find was nonetheless confusing.

8. New Zealand's rare find

In 1995, a 100-year-old capsule thought to contain historical documents was opened by hopeful scholars in New Zealand. According to The New York Times, "all they found was muddy water and a button.”

9. Michigan's capitol mess

The Michigan State Capitol celebrated its 100th birthday in 1979, and officials marked the occasion by opening a capsule that had been buried beneath the building's cornerstone. While the itemized list of the capsule's contents was intriguing—"1873 newspapers, a state history, a history of Free Masonry, a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a silver plate inscribed with Lansing officials’ names, and other papers on specialized topics"—it wasn't included in the actual box. The actual items that were buried wound up being destroyed.

“They’re in very bad shape,” Robert Warner, the late director of the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library, said. Water damage had ruined the fragile paper documents, and Capitol anniversary revelers had to gamely celebrate a box full of sludge.

10. Keith Urban's time capsule confusion

Australia's Pioneer Village Country Music Hall had been left in disrepair, which is what made the discovery of a plaque on its grounds in 2014 so exciting. Perhaps there was promise buried beneath the abandoned venue. Hidden behind overgrown vegetation, it read:

Pioneer Village Country Music Club
10 yr Time Capsule
Placed by Mayor Yvonne Chapman
This Day 4th July 1994
To be Re-opened 4th July 2004

As recounted by Paleofuture, the capsule's opening was a decade overdue, though fans who used to frequent the music hall said they already knew what was inside: a photo of a young Keith Urban. The musician got his start at Pioneer Village, and the photo was buried to celebrate the local star.

Oddly, a different capsule from 1994 was discovered on the music hall's abandoned grounds in 2013. Keith Urban fans eagerly opened it, thinking they had found the photo, but were left disappointed when it proved to be empty. So, by process of elimination, a photo of Keith Urban had to be in the more recently discovered capsule. Unless there's a third capsule, in which case they should probably just give up and buy a Keith Urban photo on eBay.

This story has been updated for 2019.

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

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